It’s difficult to believe that it’s been twenty-five years since the L.A. Riots. Or Rebellion. Or Revolt. Or Uprising. Whatever you choose to call those events of late April and early May, 1992, the pain and devastation they caused are not in dispute. Fifty-two people dead. An estimated two thousand people injured. Nearly one billion dollars in property damage. Incalculable damage to the soul of a city.
Twenty-five years later we are still reeling from those events. And the issues raised by the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent “riots” are still confronting us. They have been illuminated by the seemingly nonstop sinister cavalcade of police shootings and beatings of African American and Latino innocents in L.A. and across this country. It is a persistent plague on our culture, our society.
During the 1980s and 1990s I was a reporter for KNX, the all-news CBS Radio station in Los Angeles. As it happened, I was not working at the station at the time of the “riots.” I had left the station for a couple of years to work in public television. I re-joined the station shortly after the days that L.A. went up in smoke and I covered the long aftermath of those events.
On the day the jury came back into the courtroom after deliberating the fate of the LAPD officers I remember listening to KNX in my office as reporter Michael Ambrosini calmly, but with urgency in his voice, told the vast audience that the cops who had beaten Rodney King a year earlier had been acquitted. You could sense that something big and devastating was about to happen. Not long after the acquittal, the frustration and anger could not be contained. The city erupted in ugly violence – violence that cannot be condoned, but can surely be understood.
News helicopters and reporters on the ground broadcast the bizarre, frightening spectacle of the city on fire over the next awful week. It began to settle down after Rodney King was trotted out in front of the television cameras where he pleaded in halting, inarticulate speech: “Can’t we just get along?”
As the city began to sweep up and began to rebuild, the rancor and anger continued. It was justifiable. But anger is pointless unless and until it is converted into grassroots action – ultimately political action. Some of that began. But Los Angeles, especially within the realm of the policies and practices of the LAPD, had a long way to go. Still does.
The federal government determined that the LAPD had long used abuse and brutality as a procedural tactic when confronting African Americans and Latinos on the streets. A consent degree, forced on the city by the feds, helped initiate some reforms. But the LAPD is still regarded by many communities as a racist, brutal occupying force. And with justification.
And, of course, the Los Angeles Police Department is not alone. Police departments throughout the country often operate in that same borderline fascistic fashion. In recent years killings by police have increased. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner in New York. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland. And the list goes on and on. In 2016 police killed 258 African American men and boys. That statistic should send shockwaves throughout society. This brutality has given birth to the Black Lives Matter movement as well as other grassroots mobilizations aimed at stopping violence by police against the people.
Brutal treatment of working class men by police goes on every day. The difference recently is that many incidents are captured on cellphone cameras. When I was working in the trenches as a reporter a cameraman for one of the L.A. television stations was fond of saying: “If it wasn’t on T.V. it didn’t happen.” Well, the ubiquity of cell phone video and the Internet has made it more difficult for police to deny that police violence is an everyday practice. It’s on T.V. (and the Internet) and it’s happening.
We wouldn’t have known about Rodney King’s violent beating if George Holliday, a resident of Lake View Terrace in the San Fernando Valley, hadn’t pulled out his primitive video camcorder and documented the brutalization of King on that fateful night. King was beaten with batons and kicked into unconsciousness. Before the video was made public, the cops ludicrously claimed that Rodney King had been belligerent and threatened the safety of the half-dozen cops who huddled around him, flailing away with batons, which were like baseball bats. The footage revealed the truth.
So, where are we twenty-five years after Los Angeles went up in smoke? Regrettably, we haven’t advanced by much. Police in L.A. and elsewhere continue to brutalize communities of color. Los Angeles and other cities would be better off spending money on major reforms and better training for officers, instead of spending that money on cash settlements for victims of violence. The city is forced to pay millions of dollars to settle cases involving police beatings.
Sure, some things have changed for the better – but not much. An encouraging development is that the LAPD brass has initiated policy changes regarding confrontations on the street. Cops are being retrained in order to “de-escalate” encounters with the public, instead of ratcheting up the tension and the potential for violence by being belligerent toward the people. And the LAPD – along with other police departments – is retraining cops to better handle potentially volatile situations involving mentally ill people on the streets. Welcome steps in the right direction, but they still amount to very small drops in a very large societal bucket.
Since those events of twenty-five years ago the perfidious phenomenon of mass incarceration of black and Latino young men has surfaced as a major injustice. Just read the painstakingly researched book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander to get an idea of the enormity of the problem.
Things won’t change substantially until police departments recognize that their role is genuinely to protect and serve all the people, not just those who live in certain zip codes.
Luís Torres is an award-winning veteran journalist in Los Angeles.